A Reunion at the "MIT of India"

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Paul Sakuma / AP

Indian Institute of Technology conference attendees pick up free Google shirts from Google employee Sara Pelosi, left, at the Google booth at the IIT conference in Santa Clara, Calif., July 6, 2007.

Google, Microsoft and General Electric came to Santa Clara, Calif., last weekend, and all but begged graduates of one of the world's top engineering schools to work for them. Google spent $200,000 to be the lead sponsor of the four-day-long reunion of 3,500 alumni. Microsoft's research center in Hyderabad came calling. The CEO of GE, Jeff Immelt, already employs 1,500 graduates and says he needs more. Stanford? MIT? Harvard? Nope. This was a gathering of graduates of the Indian Institutes of Technology.

Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru started the Indian Institute of Technology in 1950 because he recognized that his new country needed builders— engineers who would give India the same vitality that was turning the United States into a superpower. The IIT system now includes seven campuses, and its graduates quickly became India's technological elite. A half-century later, their influence is almost as great in the U.S., where 25,000 of IIT's 100,000 graduates live. IIT grads include venture capitalists Vinod Khosla, Kanwal Rekhi and Yogen Dalal; former McKinsey managing director Rajat Gupta; Vodafone CEO Arun Sarin and 35 of the top 600 executives at GE. Silicon Valley couldn't run without them, and India's booming tech economy has opened up another world of opportunity. "You've almost got too many choices," Immelt said in a speech to the group on Friday. Spend some time in the world of IIT, and engineering almost feels — well, glamorous.

IIT has often been called the MIT or Harvard of India, but there's a big difference — IIT is a lot more selective than the top Ivy League schools. About 250,000 Indian students take the first screening exam for a spot at an IIT; 100,000 make it to the next round; but only 4,000 are eventually selected. Even if they could make the cut at IIT, however, the brightest young American students are less likely now than they were a generation ago to choose engineering. The number of engineering grads in the U.S. peaked in 1986 at close to 80,000, and has fallen to about 70,000 now. "Engineering has played second fiddle to other professions in the U.S." says Subhash Tandon, a 1972 IIT grad. "There isn't a prime time TV show about engineers."

But it will take more than a CSI: Palo Alto to reverse that trend. Engineering in the U.S. needs a rebranding. IIT went through such a transformation after the tech bubble burst in 2001, when engineers — Indian and American alike— were being laid off by the thousands. That's when some of the school's most prominent alumni decided to turn IIT into a brand combining the brainpower of engineering with the excitement (not to mention the big money) of entrepreneurship, by playing up the accomplishments of IITans like Umang Gupta, CEO of the web services company Keynote and employee No. 17 of the company that later became Oracle. Gupta is a rock star to young IITans, who say he understands their desire to take what they know and build something bigger out of it. "Everybody wants to start a company," says Deepak Goel, a 1999 IIT graduate and design engineer at Microsoft.

Making a mark in the global economy, however, means becoming a global citizen. "How well do you travel?" Immelt asked. It's a lesson that U.S. workers, too, are starting to learn. Satish Bhat, program manager of Microsoft's development center in Hyderabad, says he's been taking on not just Indians who want to move home, but also "diversity hires" — Americans who want to move to India. "That's where the action is," Bhat says.

Still, the IIT boosters are aware of the challenges of globalization and those it leaves behind. Immelt said India's success will be defined by its ability "to make the pie bigger." Hillary Clinton, who spoke by satellite to the crowd (a decision that left many at the conference wondering whether she was trying to distance herself from India), asked these engineers, scientists and business people to use their skills to create "a shared prosperity for America and India." IIT graduates helped build the technology that made globalization possible. Perhaps they'll also be the ones who make it work for everyone.